In Mandi Bahauddin, a narrow but well-paved two-way road divides life and death.
On one side is death, holed up in tiny claustrophobic cells, trapped in fortified walls of the district jail, waiting to take lives. On the other side stands an air-conditioned, multi-storey mall, where livelihood is both earned and spent — a metaphor for life itself.
We visit death first.
It stalks Muhammad Iqbal just as it has stalked him for two long decades since he was still a child, following him from Gujrat jail to his cell in Mandi Bahauddin. To see him, we are made to wait in a spacious hall with benches for visitors under a high ceiling. There are two separate queues for men and women to register themselves and get any items they’ve brought for prisoners inspected. As soon as I enter the hall, a policeman proclaims 'Oh chaddo yaar, wakeel saab ai hai' (make way, a lawyer is here). I quietly muse how a black suit and white shirt gives the impression that I’ve spent the better part of my life with my nose buried in legal tomes. I haven’t.
Iqbal’s nephew, a math teacher and student himself, comes up to me and asks if I am here to see his uncle. We shake hands and go sit on one of the benches. My colleague asks him some questions before he takes us to meet his mother on the other side of the loosely segregated hall.
Also read | Death penalty in Pakistan: A colonial residue
Iqbal’s sister, Sahiba Sultan Bibi, is in her 40s. It is apparent her son’s good looks come from her. Her striking but soft face is weighed down by worries. Her youngest brother is in jail on death row, and the other is on the run from the police. She rocks back and forth as she speaks of her family and their troubles — as if the motion will somehow allow her to weather the storm of distress.
She begins with the end: her mother’s death. Just a teenager at the time of her demise, Iqbal’s grief permeated his entire being. He stopped paying attention at school and started hanging out with older, rougher kids. It was around a year after his mother’s death that Iqbal was arrested for fatally shooting a man in a robbery attempt. According to the first information report (FIR), Iqbal and four others surrounded a wagon near Mandi Bahauddin close to midnight on July 10, 1998 near the village of Duggal Pind. When the driver of the vehicle reversed in panic to escape, shots were fired, smashing the windscreen. The firing injured four men, one of whom — sitting at the back of the van — later died. Iqbal was taken into police custody two months after the incident. They came to Iqbal’s house and asked his father where he was. Iqbal had gone to visit his brother-in-law at the time so his father took him to the police station the next day. The officers there said they would question Iqbal and that he would return home in the evening. His family, however, claims Iqbal was then shifted to a safe house where he was tortured into making a false confession.
On July 5, 1999, a trial court sentenced Iqbal to death while the four other boys arrested with him were handed 10 years in prison. One of the witnesses, the victim’s friend, later admitted that he was not even at the scene of the crime on that day. He was coerced into testifying against Iqbal by the police. Another witness said he would not have been able to identify Iqbal had the police not told him he was the culprit.
The death sentence was announced despite the result of an ossification test that confirmed Iqbal’s age to be 17 years at the time of the offence. His application for acquittal on grounds of compromise was also later rejected. He has now spent over 20 years in prison on death row, the prime of his life — more years than he spent outside prison.
In 2000, Pakistan promulgated the Juvenile Justice System Ordinance (JJSO), a law meant to protect the rights of those below the age of 18 years. Section 12 of the legislation prohibited the sentencing to death of any person who was a juvenile at the time of the alleged offence. A few months later a presidential notification was also issued granting remission to juvenile offenders whose death sentences had been confirmed prior to the enactment of the JJSO. Iqbal was even listed as one of the prisoners who would benefit from this notification as he fulfilled the criteria for retrospective force. But nothing came of it. The law was later replaced by a more comprehensive legislation titled the Juvenile Justice System Act, 2018. It introduced even more safeguards to protect the rights of juvenile offenders. Iqbal though continues to age behind bars.
We go into the death row cells’ area along with Iqbal’s sister and nephew. Steel bars separate him and the rest of us. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, he pours glasses of chilled Mirinda for everyone. The sweetness of the soda tastes sickly in front of the tragedy that Iqbal embodies, all the while smiling.
Iqbal and his sister have a tangible bond. As they embrace through the bars, a calm descends over both of them. We quickly take our seats and my colleague points at me, saying I would like to ask Iqbal some questions. I ask him about his childhood. It doesn’t go well. It plunges him into silence and his right shoulder starts to twitch. So we change the subject to the weather, prison food, and jail conditions.
As Iqbal begins to get more comfortable, he starts opening up. He tells us how it feels like he’s grown up in jail. And how when he’s being taken to court in a van, he peers out the small, grilled window and sees people commuting with their families — children squeezed in on motorcycles or their faces pressed against a rolled up car window. Iqbal’s love for children is apparent. But he doesn’t think he will ever be a father. I ask him if he has considered marriage under conjugal rights and he responds with a wry smile that tells me what I should have already known: a prison is no place to start a family.
And then, as if to cheer us up, Iqbal tells us how his transfer from Gujrat Jail to Mandi Bahauddin has brought him closer to his family. They can now visit him more often. He also tells us he can see the sky from here. It’s a little window to peer through and wonder what lies beyond. He talks about Europe and New Zealand and Australia. He wants to be a driver in one of these countries. Iqbal’s heard there are long tunnels in Europe.
“There must be light at the end of them.”
By the time we leave the jail premises, the towering mall has begun to cast its shadow on the prison building. Soon, evening will set in and the cooler temperature will beckon more consumers. We leave Mandi Bahauddin for Lahore, which we get to just as the sun is setting. It’s dark by the time we reach our homes. It is easy to take the light for granted. It will be there again tomorrow.
But for a 17-year-old sentenced to die or a nearly 40-year-old man who has spent over half his life on death row, light is fleeting. As fleeting as life on a dark unpaved road in Duggal Pind. Or a well-lit, well-paved one in the city of Mandi Bahauddin.
Ali Haider Habib was the Senior Assistant Editor of the Herald between April 2016 and April 2019. He currently works for Justice Project Pakistan and moonlights as a musician. He tweets @haiderhabib
The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.